What is the importance of Nathaniel Hawthorne's point of view in his novel The Scarlet Letter?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s point of view is very important when reading The Scarlet Letter because Hawthorne makes little effort to disguise or distort his own perspective on events. Admittedly, in the introductory section of the book (“The Custom House”) the unidentified narrator claims to have discovered an early account of the events the book describes – an account prepared by a local historian named Jonathan Pue.  The narrator then offers his own fictional account of the events reported by Pue.  Technically, then, The Scarlet Letter is twice removed from the people and events it purports to describe. Yet the perspective the book presents is fairly clear-cut and straightforward, and there is little to suggest that that perspective is not endorsed by Hawthorne.

The characters are presented almost as figures in an allegory. They are not nearly as complicated or complex as the characters, for instance, in Melville’s Moby-Dick. Hawthorne never claimed to be trying to write realistic “novels” in the modern sense; in fact, he made it perfectly clear that he was writing “romances,” in which ideas were at least as important as strict realism. Chillingworth, for instance, is obviously an allegorical figure, and the same is true, to one degree or another, of most of the other characters. Sometimes there are debates about the precise meanings of Hawthorne’s allegories (Pearl is often the focus of such debates), but there seems little doubt that Hawthorne intended most of the major characters to “stand for” (to represent) key ideas.  For this reason, Hawthorne’s own point of view, or at least our interpretation of his point of view, is far more important when reading this novel than when reading many other novels. The very opening words of the book imply an autobiographical point of view, and there is little reason to doubt the importance of that implication:

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public.